Veteran died alone: Did you know him?

by | May 9, 2011 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

John D. Hannah died once.

Now he is dying again.

The second death is the death of being forgotten. And Hannah, who served his country for years, has been forgotten.

His body lies alone in a cooled room in the Gates of Heaven Funeral Home in Detroit, thanks to the grace of its 66-year-old owner, Joseph Norris, who said, “My heart told me I had to do this.”

Norris is keeping Hannah unburied, in a donated coffin, until someone from his family, some brother, sister, child, uncle, cousin – even a friend – comes forward to say they knew him.

For two weeks, no one has, despite Hannah’s years of service in the Navy, despite an honorable discharge, despite calls and a letter to the U.S. Military Retirement Pay Division. Bureaucracy and privacy concerns (ironic for a man whom no one has claimed) bog down the process.

Meanwhile, Hannah’s corpse remains unvisited. Surely, there is someone reading this who knew him? A man can’t simply die in the state where he was raised, in the city where he lived and have no one to stand by his coffin, can he?

Sadly, he can. In the world of homelessness, one can die as quietly as a falling leaf. And if no one steps forward, the dilemma of what to do with the body becomes a burden for anyone who gets involved.

Norris is faced with that burden now. He kindly took possession after a homeless shelter called for help. But he can’t afford the burial costs, and he can’t cremate for fear of relatives who may come forward at a later date.

Please, if you knew John Hannah, forget the later date.

Come forward now.

Such a hard-luck life story

Hannah, as near as I can piece together, grew up somewhere in Wayne County. He served years in the Navy, reached the relatively high level of E8 (in the Navy, that would be a senior chief petty officer). At some point, perhaps a decade ago, his wife died, and he took it hard. He didn’t want to live anymore.

“He just dropped out of sight,” said Jim Hoffner, who oversees the kitchen at Pilgrim Church/I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministries in Detroit, where, for the last five or six months, Hannah had been sleeping among other homeless men, on vinyl mats beneath wool blankets. “He was a helluva nice guy. Intelligent. He helped with the chores here. At some point every day, he would walk up to the library at Wayne State. I think he used the computers there.”

He thinks. Someone else thinks. There are snippets of John Hannah from people he encountered in his final months.

He was Caucasian, thin, 5 feet 5 or so. He smoked and had lung cancer, which he accepted.

“He said he came here to die,” Annette Covington related. She is the wife of the church’s late pastor, Henry Covington. She knew Hannah as a quiet, decent man, who, after the kindness shown him at the shelter, said he changed his mind and wanted to live.

It was too late.

A final resting place needed

Hannah, after heavy coughing and complaining of pain, was taken to a nursing home a few weeks back, then to Sinai-Grace Hospital, where he passed away.

There was no one to contact. No names or addresses. And no one to pay for a grave. Norris took pity. Nearly 20 years ago, his brother was killed, and without funds to bury him, he went to work at a funeral parlor just to settle the bill.

He has been in the business ever since. “This is the first time in all my years I’ve dealt with this,” he said of Hannah’s situation. “We cleaned him up. Embalmed him. Gave him a nice brown suit and a shirt and tie. I’ve donated a metal coffin. But I’m a small operation. I don’t have the $900 it takes to bury him in a cemetery.”

And so the body of John D. Hannah, born Aug. 11, 1955, lies in wait for someone to come forward.

A poem by Thomas Hardy has these lines:

They count as quite forgot;

They are as men who have existed not;

Theirs is a loss past loss of fitful breath;

It is the second death.

The man deserves better. If you knew him, please contact the funeral home at 313-894-2427. John Hannah served his country, then spent his final days homeless and alone. After a life like that, one death is enough.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or For info on his new play, go to


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!